Because it is a harsh continent there are a variety of trainings and classes offered here in attempt to keep us from dying. (Great way to start a post, isn’t it?) I’ve talked about some of these I’d taken in other posts and I’ve added a new one to the list. This season I went to Snow School, also known affectionately as Happy Camper. It is a 2 day outdoor survival school. For some people it is mandatory for their jobs. For me it is not, but I asked to be put on the list to go for 2 reasons. One: You camp outside in Antarctica. Why not, right? What could possibly go wrong? And two: If I hope to get a ride on a helicopter or go on certain boondoggles, I have to have it. The instructors are mountaineers from the search and rescue team and are very well versed on surviving in the outdoors in these extreme conditions. They are the ones out surveying ice fields to find a safe path or out rescuing people.
There is a lot of class room (i.e. indoor) time on this course, but we eventually set up camp and stay outside for the night. The first day we learn about hypothermia — how to prevent it, how to recognize it in yourself and each other. Then we are transported outside of town to an ice field within eye shot of Mt. Erebus, our local volcano. The group of students consist of contract workers like me from town and grantees who have come to the Ice with a research group to conduct their projects out in the field. There were about 20 of us in total.
We get to the site where there are a few buildings — a classroom, 2 outhouses and a gear building. From here we load up our camping supplies and walk out to our actual camp site which is about 1/4 mild away. Now I’ve camped plenty before. But I’ve always been what I call a Fair Weather Camper. Why would someone purposely want to sleep outside in the cold? Right? But hey. How could I pass up this experience.
Luckily the weather on this day was absolutely beautiful (for Antarctica). It’s the warmest it’s been at about 25deg (yes Fahrenheit). It’s sunny and no wind. You don’t understand how big an impact the wind plays in comfort. It could be a dreadful temperature outside, but if there’s no wind, it’s really quite bearable. There are some that do this course and Condition 1 or 2 — blizzards. The mountaineers like it that way. But it was beautiful for us. Whew.
We walk to our site and we start setting up camp, Antarctica style. We have 2 Scott tents. This is the big yellow pyramid tent and it is able to withstand about anything Antarctic could bring. I don’t know the exact history on this tent, but it is like the ones Robert Scott and his polar expedition used over 100 years ago. It takes a few of us to get it upright, then staked down. We set up 2 of these, then about 7 traditional dome tents. We learn how to dig in to the snow to make very sturdy anchors and how to tie some effective knots. Ok. That’s the tents.
We also have the option of sleeping in a snow trench. Yup. That’s what it sounds like. Dig a hole and sleep in it. One of the instructors started one and demonstrated how to cover it. I won’t lie. It looked like a grave. I suppose that could be handy in case things don’t go well. I’ve already estabilished that I will be sleeping in a Scott tent with 2 people I already know.
So then we have to build a snow wall behind the tents to block the prevailing winds. Picture this….big open area, only flat ice, winds would be nasty. Now there are mountains in the distances but we’re standing in an area of miles of icy flatness. So a wall is helpful in survival. But here’s the cool thing. We slice blocks of snow out of the ground. We literally take a hand saw and cut out a bunch of perfectly rectangular blocks, lift them out and make a wall. They each are probably about 12″ x 12″ x 18″. A gazillion of these are cut and delivered over to build the wall. They are then trimmed and packed in like bricks to make the wall as tight and stable as possible. It was a definite team effort.
The quarry that is left behind is then our “kitchen”. I’ve heard other groups have dug out picnic tables in the snow or other fancy furniture. We chose to sit around the perimeter. Someone did fashion a handicap ramp (ok, that was really for the sleds that we used to drag out the newly cut snow blocks.) We learned how to use the stove and get water boiling. Typical camping stuff.
I’m giving you all of this in very orderly detail, but actually the instructors showed how to do each of these tasks give us a few minutes to try it out — put up a few of the tents, just get started on the wall, then they’d move on to the next task. Their goal was to leave us to continue without them nearby so we had to manage it ourselves. They spent the night in the heated building within radio contact. We finished building our wall, set up all the tents, and got dinner made. Some of the jobs were pretty taxing and we rotated through them. On the whole our group worked pretty well together.
By 7pm or so we were all finished and some then chose to start digging their snow trench. I was beat at this point and my back was not loving all the activity from the day. I hung out with some of the group for a while then headed in to our tent for a little stretching and rest.
The Scott tent is pretty cool. There’s the tubular tunnel you use to get in and out of it. It looks like the tent gives birth to someone as they are exitting. An immature giggle came out of me more than once.
The tent is effective and quirky, as I’d expect something of over 100 year old design. It is bright yellow and Antarctica is currently with 24 hour sunlight. This gives a weird hue to everyone and everything inside. It makes it difficulty to find something that you think is pink until you realized, “Oh, it’s that brown thing.” And strangely enough, it’s not quiet, sleeping outside in Antarctica, particularly if someone is walking around on the snow. I slept rather well though nonetheless.
In the morning I am awakened by my tent-mate and friend Joe. He’s one of the doc’s in the clinic, and if you remember, we celebrated Joevember in honor of him. Joe was up and frantically packing up all of his gear at 5:30 in the morning. Joe, what are you doing? “Packing up my gear.” What time is it? “Um. 5:30.” My other tentmate chimes in….Why are you so frantic? Calm down, buddy. “I’m not frantic. I’m just packing up my stuff.” But it’s 5:30 in the morning. Sigh.
I’ve now begun to review in my head the “recognizing hypothermia” lecture from the day before. One of the signs is a change in personality. So I start quizzing him a bit…How you doin’, Joe? You warm enough? “Yeah, I’m good. I’m going to go get some water heating.” Ok. So the long and short of it is this. My alarm clock was 30 minutes of vinyl swishing with no snooze button. Joe. Sweetest guy. I could only laugh.
So day 2 has begun. Despite my early alarm clock, I really didn’t get moving for a bit longer. And the same for the rest of the group. With some delay, we then dismantled and packed up the entire camp and headed to the classroom. We learned how to use the crazy antiquated looking radios, and performed some drills. One was the bucket drill…..we wear a bucket on our heads and try to find someone outside. This is to simulate a Condition 1 weather with zero visibility. Our group failed miserably. Then we did a second drill where we had to quickly set up a survival kit. We did pretty well at this. Woo hoo. By this time we were in and out of the camp buildings and the weather has deterioated a bit. Windy and snow but not sure if it ever dropped to Con 2. But we all had a taste of what we could have had the day before.
The day finished with more classroom stuff, returning gear and we were back in town for dinner. All in all it was a great experience and I learned some new cool camping tricks should I ever get caught outside in Antarctica. Will I use these for winter camping at home. Unlikely. I’ll stick to sitting in front of a fireplace with a cup of cocoa and leave the camping for the summers.